Remember Tom and Barbara from The Good Life? Completely self-sufficient, living off their own land, every evening sitting down to a feast of fresh and tasty produce?
Sometimes, in a long, sedentary queue underneath the fluorescent glare of supermarket strip lighting, the idea of growing your own food can be particularly appealing, especially when you’re paying through the nose for bland, lacklustre veggies. But it wasn’t always plain sailing for ol’ Tom and Barb, and so convenience tends to reign supreme. However, as long as you’re not planning on existing on your garden’s goods alone, it really is quite simple to grow one or two varieties of veg yourself. And why would you? Because it’s cheap, tasty and good for the soul. The real difficulty is not being too smug about it.
Despite many myths, you don't actually need a garden to garden; window boxes or plant pots work just as well, too – you’ll just have to consider your space when you decide what veg you want to grow. Above-ground plants like tomatoes are good in boxes, for example, whereas root vegetables like carrots will need more ground space.
Get together a basic kit of gardening tools – a hand spade, hand fork, secateurs, watering can and a sturdy pair of gardening gloves will see you right – then choose a spot that can offer 6-8 hours of sunlight a day (within reason, this is the UK after all), and make sure the area is protected from animals and accidental stompers. You’ll need to check the soil to ensure optimum happiness for your seeds.
Veg grows best in slightly acidic soil with a pH level of 6.5. There are lots of inexpensive soil testing kits on the market that can check this, and if you find your soil is too acidic a sprinkling of garden lime will balance things out. Next check the drainage. Poor drainage drowns plants, so test your soil by filling the area with water. If it’s still soaking the next day, you’ll need to rake in pieces of broken brick, pottery, tiles and sand to help things along.
Sowing your seeds
Tempting as it may be to steamroller in and start chucking handfuls of seeds about, take some time to think about which one or two kinds of veg you really like and focus on those instead. Growing your own is a labour of love and you’re more likely to have success if you can give select crops a lot of TLC rather than spreading your time thinly among lots of different plants.
You also need to consider which plants flourish at which times, and follow these rules accordingly to ensure the highest chance of success. Check out the Beeb’s helpful gardeners’ calendar for seasonal info on a huge range of plants: beetroots, tomatoes, courgettes and potatoes are good to go now, for example. But note, whenever and whatever you start planting, make sure the soil is warmer than 6◦c.)
Once you’ve chosen your veg and purchased the seeds, it’s time to get down and dirty. There are three different methods for seed-sowing, depending on what plants you’re growing:
1) The broadcast method, which involves scattering the seeds over the surface of the soil in a circular motion, then raking in or gently pressing into the soil.
2) Sowing in rows, which is fairly self-explanatory. Consider how large your plants will be in order to leave adequate room for growth, although having to ‘thin out’ at a later stage – to create room – is pretty standard.
3) Using seed tape from a garden centre or nursery. Here, seeds are sown into a tape at an optimum spacing ready for you to simply lay along your patch and cover with soil (but check the back of the packet for full instructions). Give your seeds a sprinkling of water (gently, so as not to disturb them) and then sit back and observe: if it’s hot and dry, make sure your plants are watered regularly; if a frost descends, cover them in polythene or garden fleece.
Give your plant a weekly treat of fertiliser, be alert to its condition, tend it well, and in a few weeks you’ll be enjoying the fruits (or vegetables) of your labour!
If you’re nervous about sowing seeds straight in the ground or outside, you could try germinating seeds indoors first. Simply plant them in a small pot (or even a margarine tub) with good soil and tend until they’re big enough to handle, then plant them outside.
If you’re worried about growing a plant from scratch, consider purchasing young plants from a garden centre and nurturing them to adult life instead.. If you’re really worried about getting it wrong, consider a thorough ‘practice run’ with a plant-in-a-box scheme.
Top tips for green fingers
• Rhubarb is probably the best plant for first-time growers. It’s a hardy plant that requires very little attention, and will flourish without much effort. • Always buy the best quality soil and compost you can afford.
• Lolly sticks make good, cheap plant labels.
• Planting marigolds around tomatoes will help to discourage dreaded whiteflies.
• Copper tape around plant pots will help to prevent slugs.
• As you become a more confident gardener you might want to try more exotic and interesting plant varieties. If you’re growing crops in the ground, it’s really important to rotate your vegetables every year, into a new spot. This will help reduce pests and diseases, maintain soil fertility and nutrients, and reduce the need for fertilisers.